Assault, Libel and Censorship at the University of Edinburgh

On 11th October, despite the best efforts to prevent it, a book launch took place at the University of Edinburgh.   

The book is Sex and Gender: A Contemporary Reader, a multidisciplinary collection of essays on the topics of sex and gender by various distinguished academics. Sex and Gender is edited by Professor Selina Todd of the University of Oxford and Professor Alice Sullivan of University College London. It is published by Routledge.  

The Edinburgh branch of the University and College Union (UCUE) sent an email to Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University, demanding that the book launch be cancelled. This is shocking in itself: the demands of the UCU are an explicit attack on academic freedom.   

The email contained notably few details about the contents of the book – so few that it is possible that none of the UCUE committee had read it; indeed, one committee member has publicly confirmed he has not read it. Instead, UCUE concentrated on attacking the book’s contributors. The email stated, for instance, of University of Edinburgh lecturer Dr Shereen Benjamin that she:  

continually uses the strategy of framing trans people and their rights as “gender ideology,” with the fait accompli that trans people’s existence — like any ideology or theory — can be “debunked.”   

These claims are false, and libellous. Dr Benjamin summarises her views as: “sex is real, and sex matters”. She points out that “debunking someone’s existence” is nonsense, and impossible. She adds “I have said in many places… I think people who identify as transgender should and do have the right to live, work and study free from harassment and discrimination… universities are both morally and legally obliged to uphold these rights.” The email also reported that another contributor, Professor Jo Phoenix, had said that 50% of trans people have committed sexual offenses. What Phoenix actually said is that around half of male prisoners who identify as transwomen are in prison for sex offenses. The UCUE committee consists mostly of academics, all of whom should be quite capable of distinguishing these claims. The UCUE email libelling Benjamin, Phoenix and others was sent to over 3000 members of staff.  

On the day of the launch, the UCUE called on its members to protest the event. A small number of protesters, including UCUE committee member Jonny Dennis, attempted to block access to the event by sitting in front of the entrance. Some assaulted academics, holding on to their ankles. Footage of one ankle-grabber is available here (0:12). The UCUE did not instruct the protesters to assault academics.  

Professor Mathieson issued a statement in which he claimed that the University “will not tolerate obstructive protest”. Mathieson and other university authorities have been shown footage of protesters holding on to academics, and blocking the access of academics to the event: this is obstructive protest. The University currently has no plans to investigate or discipline those involved. In the past, Edinburgh has twice allowed protesters to prevent the screening of the documentary Adult Human Female, in which several of the contributors to Sex and Gender feature. Without an extensive police presence at the launch, it is likely that protesters would similarly have prevented it from taking place. Evidently, Edinburgh does tolerate obstructive protest.  

Following the UCUE email, Sullivan and Benjamin contacted Mathieson, and requested that he require the UCUE committee to correct the libellous comments it had made about them. Mathieson failed to do so. Mathieson was previously Vice-Chancellor of Hong-Kong University, where in a survey of academic staff 78% “strongly disagreed” that Mathieson had “effectively protected academic freedom”.  

Mathieson has made statements in support of academic freedom, and a university working group on academic freedom has been set up. Unfortunately, statements aside, Mathieson and the working group have to date taken no action. The working group does not contain any of the Edinburgh academics who have recently been the target of censorship, for instance, Dr Benjamin. Such non-committal gestures are inadequate. Dr Benjamin and others have been libelled in an email sent to over 3000 of their colleagues with no right of reply. Academic attendees to the book launch have been assaulted. The opponents of academic freedom at Edinburgh are organised and determined. Mathieson and the university authorities have the power to protect academic freedom: it is a question of whether they choose to do so.